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Ukraine's Gold-Plaited Comeback Kid

Charismatic, prone to giggling, and fond of chic clothing, Yulia Tymoshenko is a woman of grand gestures.

Challenged once that her famous braid was phony, she called a press conference and then, quite literally, let her hair down. When a political rival accused her of hypocrisy during a parliamentary debate on legislative privilege, claiming that her pearls would be enough to feed an average Ukrainian family for five years, Tymoshenko tore off the necklace and threw it at the deputy with the retort: "There's not a single real pearl on this necklace!"

Tymoshenko is either adored or reviled. A prominent Ukrainian commentator once compared her to a nuclear powerhouse. If she is not contained, she will rage out of control, Yulia Mostova wrote in "Dzerkalo Tyzhnia."

Tymoshenko's supporters fervently believe that only she has remained true to her principles, never wavering from her commitment to Ukraine; her critics, on ther other hand, claim that she is a corrupt, power-hungry opportunist given to populist gestures.

In some ways Tymoshenko is Ukraine's comeback kid. Fired from her position as deputy prime minister for fuel and energy in January 2001 (while Viktor Yushchenko was prime minister), Tymoshenko bounced back a winner in the 2002 parliamentary elections.

Accused of fraud, arrested in February 2001 and jailed for several weeks, she emerged from prison a heroine, unbroken by the system, swathed in the mantle of martyrdom. (The charges against her were subsequently dropped.)

Fired from her post of prime minister in September 2005 amid an acrimonious battle over allegations of corruption in the presidential circle, Tymoshenko went on to place second in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

In the snap parliamentary elections of 2007, her bloc came in second, well ahead of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc. After much wrangling and painful negotiations, she once again emerged victorious. In December 2007, Tymoshenko became prime minister for the second time.

Quick Study

Tymoshenko was born in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk in 1960. Her maiden name, Hryhian, has led some to speculate that her father, who abandoned the family when she was 3, was Armenian. While generally quite closed about her private life, Tymoshenko has said that her background is Ukrainian and Latvian.

After graduating from the local university with a degree in economics, she worked as an economist at the Dnipropetrovsk Lenin machine-building plant for five years.

At 19, she married Oleksandr Tymoshenko, whom she was said to have met over the telephone as a result of a wrong number. He was the son of an influential Dnipropetrovsk family. Their only child, Eugenia, who was born in 1980, went on to study at the London School of Economics and marry a Yorkshire rocker and market trader named Sean Carr.

In 1988, Tymoshenko launched her first business venture, a video-rental shop that quickly started making money. Beginning in 1991, she headed up a small oil-trading company that eventually became the Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pavlo Lazarenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who is currently serving a nine-year prison term in the United States for money laundering, wire fraud, and transporting stolen goods, was widely considered to be Tymoshenko's patron and protector.

By 1997, Unified Energy Systems controlled some 25 percent of the Ukrainian economy. Tymoshenko's critics accuse her of selling vast quantities of stolen gas and evading taxes, a charge she categorically denies. According to a Unified Energy Systems promotional brochure, the company was not simply a gas-trading concern but rather a vast holding made up of 20 industrial and commercial structures, research institutes, venture-capital firms, an airline, and two banks. It is during this period that she is alleged to have amassed a large personal fortune, which some have claimed to be as much as $11 billion.

National Appeal

Whatever the size of her fortune, during her years at the helm of Unified Energy Systems Tymoshenko gained valuable insight into the opaque energy relationship between Ukraine and Russia. From 1999, as the deputy prime minister for fuel and energy in Yushchenko's reformist government, Tymoshenko earned a name for herself closing down dubious energy operations favored by Ukraine's gas barons. That did not go down well with the ruling powers, and President Leonid Kuchma fired her in January 2001.

Arrested shortly after her dismissal on charges of bribery and tax evasion, Tymoshenko spent several weeks in jail before emerging as an even more ardent and uncompromising politician. Her now-famous plaited hairdo was born and with it a polished, exact, and crusading public persona.

The following years in Ukraine were marked by active street protests against the administration of President Kuchma, who was implicated in the disappearance and murder of a highly regarded investigative journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze. Kuchma remained in office but became increasingly isolated internationally. Tymoshenko's tireless criticism and denunciation of the Kuchma regime propelled her into a leading role in the Orange Revolution of 2004-05.

Her firm opposition to Viktor Yanukovych and a fraudulent presidential election electrified the thousands of people who braved freezing temperatures on Kyiv's central square to demand a new vote. Of all the speakers who addressed the crowds of pro-democracy protesters, no one was able to inspire and work the crowd the way Tymoshenko could. The prime minister's position was her prize: Having lost it under the cloud of alleged corruption, she was determined to get it back; and get it back she did as part of a coalition agreement after early elections in October 2007.

Tymoshenko, unlike many Ukrainian politicians, has national appeal. During the last parliamentary elections, her bloc made great strides both in western and Russophone eastern Ukraine. No other political party has been able to achieve this.

More recently, Tymoshenko's standing has been tarnished by near-constant bickering with President Yushchenko, although she has consistently come out on top in popularity polls.

Her bloc's recent siding with Yanukovych's Party of Regions to enact legislation curtailing the presidential powers turned out to be the straw that broke Ukraine's Orange coalition.

Accused by the president and political rivals of treason and cozying up to Russia, Tymoshenko has dismissed those accusations and continues to express hope in a democratic coalition.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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